In April, during the lockdown, I set myself the target of taking 10,000 steps a day. At the time, it was a way of breaking the monotony of the endless days and nights spent inside the literal hole we had all fallen into. Pacing up and down within the confines of your home isn’t easy—you are moving from one room to another, negotiating furniture and door mats, and coming up against walls.
But as you keep at it, you fall into a routine.
Once the lockdown ended, I started going out for my morning walk. In the pre-pandemic era, I used to take a circular route, and then buy vegetables before heading back home. This would add up to around 4,000 steps. The remaining steps came from commute to work in the Metro.
With WFH and nowhere to go, I increased my radius, aiming to do the bulk of my steps in the first half of the day.
My route takes me past three parks, four small markets, roadside tea shops, vegetable vendors setting up their carts, several stray dogs and cows and the sound of the day stirring to life. There is a certain familiarity after all these months: the sari-clad woman who walks briskly (I amble); the two elderly gentlemen who walk together, one of them talking loudly; the black stray dog who comes and sniffs me—maybe it’s his way of saying hello; the lean, tall, brown dog sitting or sleeping on the roof of a car; the guard in one of the blocks who greets me with “Namaste didi".
But first about the four resident stray dogs on the road in front of our row of four-five buildings: mother, two daughters and a son. The househelp at the ground-floor flat outside which they hang out has christened them Kali, Kalu, Bhuri and Gauri. No surprises there: the names denote their colour. I have found that they don’t respond to these names, and rightfully so. A stray cannot be shackled with a name, it’s a free spirit. It will attach itself to people and houses it likes, chase speeding motorcyclists and cars, refuse biscuits it doesn’t like, and snap its jaw at pesky flies.
These four have adopted me—and two other houses—and we have a simple arrangement: milk and bread in the morning and Marie biscuits at other times. Kalu dominates the group, Gauri is the meekest. Bhuri likes making gurgling sounds as if she’s having a conversation with you. Kali, the mother, has a serious demeanour offset by piercing reddish-brown eyes. In summer, Kalu usually sleeps in the hollow of a felled tree right outside our road-facing bedroom. In the stillness of the night, you can hear the flapping of his ears when he shakes his head.
Coming back to the morning walk, the four recognise the loud sound of my door latch. As I exit the house around 6am, at least two of them will materialise, sometimes all four, wagging their tails vigorously. They will then run ahead of me, stretch, let off an excited woof—their paws making a tik-tik sound on the road. It’s like our own little ritual. Since strays rarely venture beyond their territory, they stop after a point and watch me disappear from sight as I turn left into the neighbouring block with a sprawling park.
Here there is more tail wagging from two white dogs with brown patches. You can hear the sound of someone running in the park, and a Metro train rolling by.
From this block I exit on to the main road, going past the main market of this Delhi neighbourhood. The place is abuzz. This is where the newspapers are delivered and sorted for distribution in the area. On one side, sitting under a streetlight, a tea vendor is already doing brisk business—a neat stack of bread pakoras on the side, ready to sizzle in the hot oil. A couple of people can be seen reading newspapers. Sometimes the police van on patrol makes a chai stop.
Going past the market, I turn right into a long winding tree-lined inside road which curves around a L-shaped park, goes past one of the blocks and then merges with a main road. As the winter has deepened, the shadows of the trees have started to look like a poem—fleeting and intangible. A week or two back, I noticed three young men doing push-ups in the park, clad in track pants and vests—to be young is to not feel cold. Further down this road, a tea kiosk, simply called R.S., is also up and running. The other day, a cab driver was parked there, his radio filling the air with old Hindi songs.
In early November I noticed three calves on this road, huddled together. Since then I have been carrying my vegetable and fruit peels for them. I have seen a maid feed them rotis before heading off inside one of the blocks for work. There must be other people doing the same—the calves have grown a bit and appear to be in good shape.
At the end of this road, I turn left and then further down right, to the end of the neighbourhood, marked by a boundary wall. Beyond this is wilderness with a dirt track running through it. I am told it leads to a village/basti a few kilometers away, from where most of the household helps, car cleaners and drivers come. I take a U-turn here and head back. There is a small church cum pre-school here. This past month it is all lit up with a huge Christmas tree; the guard switches off the lights at 6.30am. Next to the church is Ishwar Ashram Trust dedicated to Swami Lakshmanjoo (1907-91), a scholar of Kashmir Shaivism. Two streams of thought sharing a common wall.
Since the past one month, a guy has been sitting here on the side of the road with a large steel container of tea and biscuits on a small table. Rickshaw-wallahs and cyclists coming from the village stop here for the free tea in the biting cold—the loud chatter in Bengali giving it the vibe of a Kolkata neighbourhood. Further down, a woman vegetable vendor is setting up shop on the pavement. Next to her, a newspaper vendor has the day’s papers neatly laid out. Fifty steps from them, outside a public urinal, a man can be found selling flowers—the location and smell obviously not a deterrent. In the evening, there’s a second-hand clothes stall at the same spot. Some 20 steps away, there’s another flower seller operating from an abandoned bus stop. This road leads to a traffic signal. Here I turn right, with a market to my left. The night guard is still on duty, sitting on a chair, next to him a black stray dog curled up on a discarded sack. On some mornings I see him talking and patting the dog. Dogs are like sponges—they don’t argue or talk back.
Here, I leave the main road and walk inside one of the blocks. The guards at the gate have their own set of strays for company. In one of the ground floor flats, you will find the television on. The big screen filled with the dramatic colours of a Hindi serial, visible through the sheer curtains. If you walk past in the evening, the TV is on. Someone once said that they leave the TV on to fill the absence of people.
My last stop is the Safal vegetable booth, around 300 steps from my house. The three resident stray dogs here are looked after by the shopkeepers in this small market. There used to be four of them. The dark brown one with limpid eyes and a slight defect in his right paw used to love eating tomatoes. He would catch me unawares, poking my hand with his nose. He died earlier this year.
As I turn into the road leading to my house, I scan for the four strays. Sometimes I will spot two of them. Once they are certain it’s me, their ears twitching, they start sprinting towards me. Then we walk together to the house. The pandemic made me break my own rule of never pat a stray dog (in my mind, it creates an intimate bond). Before I head into the house, I stroke their head. They stand still. It’s a moment of stray love, like butter melting on a warm toast, the smell of a freshly baked cake, a cup of steaming tea on a bleak day. I am already smiling irrespective of what the day will deliver.